Kim Gargar told us to wait outside for our interview. We wanted to ask him about his life, what got him into activism and why he had been thrown into prison. Prior to the meeting, we had also heard about Panalipdan Southern Mindanao and we were buzzing with the questions we would ask him. It was hard to believe such a famous person was just an ikot jeepney ride away, in UP Mindanao where he currently teaches Physics.
After a few moments, Kim Gargar came out of the CSM building. All of us made our way towards the huts by the little bridge where it was quiet enough to do the interview. We asked him immediately why he became an activist. He looked amused by the question and answered it with a question of his own. “What do you think activism is?” I gave him the most honest answer I could think of: a way of fighting oppression. He said my answer was right then told me about his activism’s roots.
When he was still in college sometime between ’96 and ’97, his father lost his job in the local factory together with thousands of other people who also worked for other factories because of the decreasing demand for products. The influx of cheaper foreign products had doomed the local economy. And because of that, he saw how the nation had neglected the needs of its own people in order to further fuel national economic growth. Entire villages where factory workers used to live became empty ghost towns. The labor boom ended there.
Right after he got his bachelor’s degree in 2000 from MSU-IIT, he had an existential crisis. He questioned what his life’s purpose was and thought about how life only wanted to take his years in exchange for money. He didn’t want to pursue a career that he would eventually grow to hate, so he thought about the things he wanted to do and realized that perhaps science would be able to fill a void. And because he had a passion for science he decided to turn it into a career.
“Science man akong kinaon, tong una pa,” were his exact words. What he meant was that he had always had a fascination for processes and systems, even before he decided to pursue it as a career. He was tough enough to have made a career out of it while I stuck to writing. His passion for learning more about Physics led to his love for teaching it.
He told us about that time when he was about to work as a teacher for the Philippine Science High School in Lala, Lanao del Norte back in the year 2000. Unfortunately, it was during this time when President Joseph Estrada had declared an all-out war against insurgents in the area. The sound of bombs going off, mortar shells bursting, and gunshots echoed in the distance. He listened to the explosions from his home and thought about how people were dying just over the horizon, and how helpless everyone was, even he, in putting a stop to the hostilities.
In order to pursue his dream of teaching, he moved to Manila to teach in UP Diliman later that same year. He eventually came to work for other universities such as the Polytechnic University of the Philippines and the Mapua Institute of Technology. He saw how the strong presence of activism affected the lives of people in UP Diliman, and this later fuelled his passion to fight for a cause, particularly the protection of the environment and the communities that are in it.
“Asa ka gilabay sa Ginoo, didto ka muturok,” he said, when he was talking about how people that had different religious and social backgrounds were able to come together to help others. I thought about his words. People were like seeds, planted by God in a place for a certain purpose. These seeds were nourished by both rainy days and sunny ones, shaped by the need to grow, to be something more than it originally was until its branches begin to spread across the sky, and the few leaves multiply to become a thick canopy under which all forms of life would find shelter.
In 2014, Gargar joined Francis S. Morales Resource Center, a nongovernment organization tasked to coordinate environmental groups, social and religious sectors within Panalipdan Southern Mindanao. Panalipdan Southern Mindanao had been advocating for human rights and environmental protection. Militarization in indigenous peoples’ ancestral lands was one of the issues the country had been facing. Military presence was tight in some areas, particularly Talaingod and Kapalong, Davao del Norte, and Barangay White Kulaman, Kitaotao and San Fernando, Bukidnon, home to Ata Manobos, Matigsalugs, and Tigwahanon Manobos, as these were deemed to be places were some members of New People’s Army. He then said that militarization was not done to counter insurgency, but to open ancestral lands for transnational companies who wished to conduct mining activities in these areas.
“After they were forced to evacuate due to military attacks, they sought refuge at UCCP Haran, which had been their established sanctuary since 1994,” Gargar said. “Panalipdan-SMR conducted a donation drive in February 2015 during their first evacuation this year. After a dialogue with their leaders and military officials, which was mediated by Davao City Mayor Rodrigo R. Duterte in February 2015, they went back to their communities as the military promised to pull-out. They did pull out but only for a month or so, and with threats that lumad schools cannot open next school year.”
Fortunately, concerned individuals like Kim Gargar continue to extend help to several communities. Sometime in October 2013, while he was doing his research and at the same time assisting the Pablo victims in Barangay Aliwagwag, he was framed and then arrested for the supposed possession of bombs and firearms. It turned out that the NPA got into a scuffle with people from the military during his stay, and when they found Kim Gargar in the area, they accused him of being a member of the NPA and was promptly taken into custody against his will. The soldiers did not have a warrant of arrest, but they didn’t let that get in their way, and through unjust means, arrested him anyway.
“I did not commit any crimes.”
He tried to explain his innocence, but his protests fell on deaf ears and the accusations led to a ten-month imprisonment and the creation of the ‘Free Kim Gargar’ movement. The organization managed to gather PhP 210,000 in order to pay his bail, but it was clearly rather unfair. When the soldiers found him, he had been unarmed, so in order to make it look like he truly was a member of the New People’s Army, they planted bombs and a M16 alongside his belongings. And when they finally got to court, they used the fake ‘evidence’ against him. They wanted him out of the picture, and because the illegal possession of explosives was a crime people could not get bailed out of, the soldiers thought the false evidence would serve them well. Thankfully, the evidence proved to be weak and for a strange reason, one of the soldiers admitted in court that his affidavit was a lie. Due to the weak evidence, the plea was accepted, and he was released.
Kim Gargar now works at UP Mindanao, but while he is now free from the confines of an iron cell, the case lives on and he is currently out on bail. He still has other pending cases and the ten months in jail cannot be erased. The same goes for the memory of the soldiers and their unjust behavior. He told us that aside from wrongfully arresting him they also took his belongings and never returned them, his gadgets were distributed among the soldiers and even his ATM card was taken from him.
Despite those unpleasant experiences, Professor Gargar remains a kind individual with a passion for science and a will to help the people. Before our interview ended, he even joked about recruiting us to become activists, and his question made us think.
After everything he’s been through, why does he still want to go back? What makes a person care that much, and why don’t we care as much as that? What makes a person that passionate?
And as the interview drew to a close, he ended on an enlightening note by saying that one could help people no matter who they are or what their religion is. The important thing is that we respect one another and help whenever and wherever we can. As for his future plans, he said he didn’t have any big time plans, but that he was going to help people by tackling one issue at a time.
Michelle Andrea Asagra, Jade Monterverde Baylon, and Joanna Paula Cagape are taking up BA English-Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines Mindanao.